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'Seniors for Buttigieg': Why voters twice his age feel drawn to the millennial mayor

Updated 11:25 AM ET, Sat May 25, 2019

Des Moines, Iowa (CNN) - When Barbara Paulding was 44 years old, Joe Biden had been a member of the United States Senate from Delaware for more than a decade -- and Pete Buttigieg was about to be born.

Despite being only 37 years old, the latter -- a gay, veteran mayor from South Bend, Indiana, who is running for president in 2020 -- wowed the now 81-year-old Paulding after he spoke in a low-slung union hall here in Des Moines.

Paulding represents a growing number of senior citizens who have rallied around Buttigieg because of -- not in spite of -- his age. And she said after Buttigieg's speech that her support of the millennial mayor over the 76-year-old former vice president Biden or 77-year-old Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders does not feel abnormal.

A recent CNN poll found that 22% of people 65 and older have a favorable opinion of Buttigieg, compared to 16% for voters under 34. And a recent Suffolk University poll in New Hampshire found more voters older than 65 said they would back the Indiana Democrat if the primary was today than voters younger than 50.

"I am ready to turn power over," Paulding said. "Look at the mess we have made of it.

"I like Joe, but I don't want Joe to be President. I think we just need new leadership. I really feel that very strongly. Obama was a new year and transformational and I think we need that."

The contrast between Paulding, a retired educator and author, and Buttigieg, a baby-faced Democrat, is readily apparent to the octagenerian. After the presidential candidate wrapped up his speech, she laughed, thinking about how he was young enough to be her grandson.

"I am ready to have somebody young," she said with a shrug.

'A generational alliance'

Paulding is not unique.

As Buttigieg has risen in popularity, the faces in his growing crowds have not been solely dotted with young people who see the South Bend, Indiana, mayor as a member of their generational cohort. Instead, Buttigieg has seen a steady growth in support from senior citizens, with polls showing that the age group is, in some cases, more fervent in their Buttigieg support than voters closer to the mayor's age.

Jim Green, a 75-year-old Vietnam War veteran and a vice chair of the Democratic Party in Londonderry, New Hampshire, introduced Buttigieg at a listening session for veterans on Friday.

"I was thinking about his age when they asked me to do the introduction," Green said with a laugh after the event. But, when he reflected on it, Green said he believed Buttigieg -- even at his young age -- had the right experience to be President. And, as a veteran, he appreciates the fact that Buttigieg has called for an end to endless war, like he did on Friday.

"We are old enough and close enough to the end that you kind of take a look and see there are some people who seem to be moving stuff forward and then there are other people who are standing still," Green said without endorsing Buttigieg. "I've got to think about my grandkids. And I think he is moving things forward."

And Buttigieg has noticed the senior support.

"The thing that has really helped us out is that we have found the makings of a generational alliance of people of all ages who are focused on the future and believe it is time for a new generation to step forward," he told a small audience in Marshalltown, Iowa, in April.

That idea of building this kind of coalition has come up time and again on the campaign trail -- and Buttigieg has started to mention it at many of his events, seemingly when he looks out into the crowd and sees older faces.

During a trip to South Carolina in March, Buttigieg said he believed -- despite the fact the millennial generation is "sometimes a little misunderstood" -- his campaign had a chance to "build a generational alliance around the hope of a better future."

"If we don't step up, who will?" he asked. "Who has more at stake than those who will be picking up the pieces of the decisions that are being made right now?"

Jerry Pinneke, a 70-year-old Democrat from Ankeny, Iowa, was at Buttigieg's Marshalltown speech and was moved by his call for a "generational alliance," especially on the impact it will have on voters who are considering supporting Biden.

"I really appreciate Joe Biden, but he is like me," Pinneke said. "He is an old guy and we have to get the hell out of the way and let the younger people come up, like Pete."

Buttigieg told CNN on his April trip in Iowa that he believes the reason for the senior support is they understand better than others "just how much of a need there is for change."

"They are excited about the idea of new ideas, of new faces, and they're not afraid of it," Buttigieg said. "Obviously, I'm excited about being able to engage fellow millennials in the way that we've been able to connect with young voters ... but really this won't succeed unless we can unite voters like that with voters my parents' age or older and it's been really inspiring and exciting to see that in the crowds that come."

While Buttigieg's senior supporters do seem drawn to some of his ideas -- like his pledge to invest billions into combating climate change and his plan to expand Medicare to any American who wants it -- it appears to be his mere presence, the fact that he has already run a town like South Bend for eight years and the fact that such a young candidate could stand a chance in a presidential election that activates his older supporters.

And appealing to seniors is not new to Buttigieg -- even if it remains somewhat confounding.

The mayor wrote in his pre-campaign memoir, "Shortest Way Home," that during his first run for mayor -- when he was just shy of 30 -- a poll of the city found older voters were more likely to say "it was a positive that I was twenty-nine years old."

"To this day, I wonder why," he wrote. "Is it that senior voters are less likely to see distinctions between twenties, thirties, and forties? Did I remind them of their children? Whatever the reason, we took the data as a reminder that you should never assume who will or won't support you."

'I feel motherly toward him'

Interviews with some of Buttigieg's older supporters show how Buttigieg's observations appear to be valid.

"If had a son, I would want him to be exactly like him," said Marty Davis, a 66-year-old lifelong Republican who, after noticing a lot of seniors on Facebook posting about Buttigieg, started the group "Seniors for Pete Buttigieg." "I feel motherly toward him, to be honest. If you want the perfect children to run our country the perfect way, it would be Pete."

Davis' Facebook group, while tallying only a few hundred people, has turned into an outpouring of support from people who are old enough to be Buttigieg's mother or father. Some post about how he reminds them of their kids, while others remark that they see little difference between him and other slightly older candidates.

But what Davis, who lives in Beaumont, California, after three decades of working for the City of Palm Springs, said she has noticed most clearly is that seniors are drawn to Buttigieg because of his age, not because they are willing to ignore it.

Biden and Sanders "have been around for 40 years, they are just not as visionary to me, not as attuned to the generation of my daughter, which is very important to me," she said. "I want my daughter's generation to be represented now."

The same is true for Lisa McAllister, a 60-year-old retired bank manager who joined Davis' group after she began seeing more and more about Buttigieg online.

"I really think that the world belongs to this generation," said McAllister, who recently moved to Point Pilot, Texas, after spending her life in Washington state. "I am going to be exiting in the next 20-30 years and they should really be the ones making the decisions."

McAllister, who has a 30-year-old son, said she respect millennials because they have grown up in a world of near constant war, school shootings and political upheaval.

"If you are a patriot, if you love your country, you want the best for not only your current population but the future," she said. "You have got to take a look at the mistakes that we have made and there comes a time when we have to hand power over to those that will be living in the world they create."


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